Eight Seconds to Fame

“I don’t feel like I’m living if I’m not living a little rough,” Travis Leistner of Holland said about riding bulls. The 23-year-old rode his first bull in December 2011 in New Caney, Texas. Since then, he has ridden about 160 bulls. Here, Leistner lasted about 4 seconds atop the bull branded F1 during a rodeo near Belleville, Ill., on June 8

Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Dave Weatherwax

The bucking beast, stuffed with 2,000 pounds of twisting muscle and void of patience, flung itself free of the gate and sharply veered right. Like a tornado, it pivoted left, twirled and simultaneously kicked its hind legs at least 8 feet into the air.

Travis Leistner lasted about 4 seconds, halfway to the goal.

Then the bull branded F1 launched the 183-pound former college football player from its backside in a spring-loaded dismount. Leistner flipped and twisted before the side of his face met the dirt.

Swirling with sting, the 23-year-old Holland man who earlier in the day had driven nearly three hours to near Belleville, Ill., for this rapid rush of manhood hopped to his feet, scrambled toward the fence and scaled the rails. Bull riders live to hit the eight-second whistle. They usually fail.
Therein lies the allure. It’s a what-you-got-big-boy kind of thing. Here, hop on and see what happens. Eight seconds can make you a rodeo legend. The rugged road there makes the story.

“I guess it takes a different breed,” Leistner said. “People think it’s silly, but they have their dreams, too. You put your best foot forward. Dreams are meant to be caught, not chased.”

Leistner doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. He’s happy making a living from work for the
Huntingburg Street Department and on the family farm. He knows it’s unlikely he will turn himself into a professional bull riding star. But back when he was a kid, he asked for rodeo tapes for Christmas presents and urged his parents, Randy and Bobbi, to take him to nearby rodeos.

At 183 pounds, Leistner is a fraction of the weight of the 2,000-pound bulls he rides. To give himself a fighting chance, Leistner stays on top of his physical condition by lifting weights, running, jumping rope and doing situps, pushups and pullups. Leistner jumped rope in his Holland garage March 27.

It’s a phase Randy and Bobbi guessed would pass. And for a while, a football career at Southridge High School and later at Kentucky Wesleyan College satisfied the craving for the extreme. He left KWC during his sophomore year, eager to exchange the monotony of school for the grown-up life.
He also created time to answer the pangs pinching since childhood.

“The whole family was on his back about not quitting college, not trying rodeo, because it’s such an impossible thing for him to achieve,” Bobbi recalled.

“But he has this  calling on his heart to do it. He talked to me and said, ”˜If I don’t do it now, I might not ever do it.’ It’s such a passion in his heart, he had to give it a try.”

He rode his first bull in December 2011 in a place called New Caney, Texas. On a lonely ranch outside Houston, curious bull riders gathered at a school to learn the basics. About half of them were rookies. They spent eight hours the first day studying the basics. Technique, terminology.
Ground work, they called it.

“And on the second day, they turned us loose,” Travis said. “The only thing I could think was, ”˜Hang on.’”

He lasted 4.5 seconds. Not bad for a novice who didn’t know then what he knows now.

For a ride that unfolds quick as a clap, there’s an overload of minutiae.

Most evenings, Leistner spends a few minutes atop a barrel covered with a carpet in the garage of his Holland home, as he did the evening of March 12. On the barrel, he practices the maneuvers he uses to counter the movement of a bull. “It’s like a dancing partner. You want to keep in perfect timing and rhythm,” he said. 

In the garage in the Leistners’ home in the middle of Holland sits a barrel Travis mounted a few feet off the floor on old wood scraps and covered with a spare piece of carpet. Most evenings, he climbs aboard. He starts at the rear and works his way forward, keeping a strip of air under his butt and leaning forward, chest out, so much of his weight rests on his inner thighs and groin. He presses his knees inward against the barrel. He keeps his back flat and his belly button pointed straight ahead as if it’s shining a light toward a destination. Move your hips incorrectly, the shoulders shift and equilibrium evaporates.

Leistner tried to get a firm grip on the rosin-covered rope wrapped around his practice barrel as he practiced counter maneuvers in the garage of his Holland home March 12. The ropes used in bull riding are lathered with rosin to make them sticky.

Then, you’re on the ground.

At first blush, the routine doesn’t look all that strenuous. Leistner lifts weights, runs a mile or two regularly, endures situps and pullups, jumps rope nightly and can buzz through 100 pushups without pause. But on the barrel, sweat beads on his forehead. His hamstrings burn. He pants.

Pretending the bull has darted left, he raises his left hand in front of his face with a tight, circular pattern. Washing the windshield, he calls it. Mimicking the bull’s right-hand swerve, he shifts his left hand backward and then hoists it over his head. Riders who complete the eight-second whirlwind are scored for their technique and bulls are scored for their volatility.

“Muscle memory is important,” he said. “There’s no time to think on the bull.”

Yet, Travis assesses, 95 percent of bull riding is mental. Several times each year, when the weather and schedules allow, he travels 115 miles to Macedonia, Ill., to practice on live bulls and work with a man there he calls his “mental coach.”

“You just have to visualize a good ride,” said Trevor Williford, a 33-year-old who gave up riding a few years back but raises bulls and welcomes competitors to train at his home. “You don’t let a bad ride enter your mind. You just sit there and think about a good ride over and over and over again until it becomes second nature.”

Some say it takes 100 bulls to get there.

Leistner has been on about 160.

Before his bull was ushered into the chute during a rodeo near Belleville, Ill., on June 8, Leistner wrapped his rope around the bull’s stomach and back.

He estimates 30 to 40 percent of riders cover the famed eight-second span and even the best of the professionals cover only about half the time. He’s made it 25 or 30, including practice sessions.
The first was during a practice session in April 2012 on a bull named Rebel. He did it again in January, when he won a Tennessee rodeo and the $500 prize that came with it.

Because the excitement it provides for the crowd, bull riding is usually the last event of the night during a rodeo. Leistner spends much of his time waiting by keeping to himself, praying and studying his bull, as he did at a rodeo near Belleville, Ill., on June 8.

Many of the rest, like a pair of 7.22-second efforts last October, have ended in a familiar scene.

Riders tossed from their rowdy escort hit the ground thinking two things: Am I OK? Where’s the bull? Sometimes, he wants more.

At a three-day riding school taught by legend Gary Leffew near Chicago in February, a bull stepped on Leistner’s groin, leaving him seeing white before things went blurry. He passed out, was rushed to a hospital and given a CT scan to ensure he wasn’t bleeding internally.

A week after the Belleville fall in which Travis brushed aside the head-first landing, he nearly lost his helmet as he helicoptered from the bull to the ground. One of the bull’s hooves slammed into Leistner’s head. Dizzied, he wobbled away hopeful the bull would retreat.

He didn’t want the horns. Not like a couple months back, when a bull gashed his right elbow, leaving him with bursitis and a 2-inch scar. Bulls in a bad mood have ripped his jeans and chaps and tested the durability of his padded vest, gloves and hockey-style helmet. Aware of the symptoms of concussions from his football days, he’s sure he’s suffered his share during rodeos.

Having arrived a couple hours before the rodeo began near Belleville, Ill., on June 8, Leistner killed time with his girlfriend, Ashley Crosby of Washington, in his car.

He doesn’t hold the damage against the bulls.

“He knows where you are,” he said. “He can feel it. Some bulls are just mean. They know the routine.”

Upon arrival at rodeos, Leistner watches whatever bull he’s been randomly assigned to ride. At Belleville, he drew a bull he’d ridden before — many stock holders travel with their bulls to rodeos across the Midwest — and knew that F1 was calm the last time he saw him. At the Dubois County Fair last week, Leistner surveyed his bull as it rebutted a riled-up pen mate.

From the time they arrive at the rodeo, sometimes four or five hours before their turn, bull riders merely wait. Bull riding is always the last event of the night, granted grand finale status because, as the public-address announcer in Belleville bellowed, “The Sportswriters Guild of America has voted bull riding the most dangerous sport in the world.”

Whether that’s true is immaterial. The first bull that evening tossed its rider and rammed a horn into the man’s rump. That’s danger enough to energize any crowd.

“It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Leistner said. “It’s a 2,000-pound animal with horns as long as my arm. When I played football, teammates helped me make tackles. With this, it’s just me and him.”

Leistner estimates that 30 to 40 percent of bull riders cover the 8-second span and even the best of the professionals cover only half the time. Leistner lasted nearly 6 seconds on the bull he rode at the Dubois County 4-H Fair on July 15.

So you enter with caution.

At Belleville, Leistner climbed a rail and lowered himself onto F1, sliding his boots down the animal’s sides “just to let him know I’m there.” He pulled his feet away and pulled tight a rope that circled the bull’s stomach and back. It was lathered with rosin, sticky to keep a good grip. Rodeo workers or fellow riders tugged the rope until it was snug enough to lay the bull’s hide flat against the back of Leistner’s hand. He slid forward to the sweet spot, closer to the horns but farther from the powerful hind legs; riders call that the “pain zone.”

Leistner knelt during a prayer before the start of a rodeo near Belleville, Ill., on June 8.

He rolled his right hand forward onto his knuckles and put the left hand at his side. He sat up, leaving air between his midsection and the bull’s skin.

The gate opened from the backside and F1 slammed the throttle.

“Anytime you get on a bull,” Leistner said, “it could be your last time.”

Even as much as bull riding tests manhood, Leistner is not some kind of macho show-off. He keeps to himself before events, often praying, and is comfortable paying the $50 to $75 entry fees on a regional circuit that takes him to events primarily in Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee. Others travel from far greater distances; the Dubois County 4-H Fair rodeo included participants from the Carolinas, Oklahoma and Canada.

Leistner largely makes his living by raising cattle on the family farm and working for the Huntingburg Street Department. He fed his cattle the evening of March 12.

Leistner has tried one Professional Bull Riding event. In February, he entered the system’s Touring Pro Division, a kind of minor leagues. Riders there need to accumulate so many points and $2,500 in winnings to earn a card for the Built Ford Tough Series. Those are the big boys Leistner once dreamed about.

Riding in front of a crowd of thousands that night in downtown Indianapolis, including Randy and Bobbi in the upper deck, he lasted 4.5 seconds.

It wasn’t 8 seconds. It’s never easy. But it’s always the goal.

“It’s just that competition. You can’t quit,” Leistner said. “It’s a long road and it’s one of the hardest things to do. Once it starts and the gate opens, you can’t call a timeout.”

Contact Jason Recker at jrecker@dcherald.com.

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